Tag Archives: Prayer

When Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough

5 Dec

Image result for thoughts and prayers are not enoughIn the morning, my family has a routine.  Our two kids still at home, one middle schooler, one elementary, get ready for school while we are watching the local news.  Then at 7am we switch over to CBS for their morning show.  A few days ago, we were surprised to hear that CBS fired one of their anchors, Charlie Rose, because of sexual misconduct.

Then a few days after that, we were watching the same program when they reported that NBC had just fired one of the Today Show anchors, Matt Lauer, for the same reason.

It seems like a new allegation and firing occurs every day.  That the truth is coming out and people are being held accountable is incredibly important and good.  A necessary purging, hopefully leading to deep change in our society.

But on top of the reports of sexual misconduct there have also been mass shootings pretty much every day.  In malls, schools, movie theaters, at concerts, in churches.

As we hear about these abusers and tragedies, we can’t help but think that the world is a dark place.  We can become despondent, confused.  How do we respond to darkness, to tragedy?  What should we think and feel?  What should we do?

One of the first responses to tragedy that we hear is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Praying for people is good thing.  You see it on Facebook, in the news, on the lips of politicians.  Prayer rising up out of the ashes of tragedy.

In that sense, “Thoughts and Prayers” is a good thing.

But after one of the recent shootings, the idea of “thoughts and prayers” was called into question. The shooting happened, and almost as soon as the news was reported, people started posting “thoughts and prayers” on Facebook.

“Las Vegas, our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

But this time that sentiment, which is a good thing, was called into question.  Why?  Maybe people had reached a point where things had gotten so bad, that they had enough.  Maybe some people felt that “thoughts and prayers” was nice, but other action needed to be taken.  “Thoughts and prayers” has been called into question many times before, especially when “thoughts and prayers” are uttered by people who could potentially do something to stop or decrease the tragedies, but don’t.  And that makes people very upset.

I am going to agree with them today.  Other action does need to be taken.

Hear me out.  The critique I’ve heard says that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough because something additional needs to happen around gun laws.  Lives are so easily cut down by guns, thus  motivating the critique of “thoughts and prayers.”

I’m not going to talk about gun laws today.  Might be a topic for another time!

Today, though, I am going to agree with the critique of “thoughts and prayers.” I’m going to say that “thoughts and prayers” are good, but not enough.   There is another form of prayer that is so often missing.

That prayer is called lament.

Do you ever pray prayers of lament?  I rarely do.  I hardly even know what lament means.  And yet, lament is very much a common kind of prayer in the Bible. There is a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations, for goodness sake! Lament is especially prevalent in the Psalms.  One scholar I found claimed that more than 50% of the Psalms are lament.

And yet, I suspect many of us do not know about lament.  What is lament?

I suspect that we confuse lament with regret over a bad choice.  If something is lamentable, we mostly, I think, mean that we feel someone made a bad choice.  A error.  The words “lament” and “regret” are related no doubt, but they have different meanings.  Regret is when you are upset about a bad choice you made and you wish you could change it.  Lament is a bit different.  And I think the difference is why we so often have regrets, but we don’t lament.

Lament is defined as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow; mourning.”

We know about this when we mourn the loss of loved ones.  But lament takes things further.  And that is what we see in these psalms that we will study in Advent.

As I said earlier, when there is a tragedy, we often respond by saying “our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  Prayer for those going through tragedy is good.  I think, though, that we need to add lament to our thoughts and prayers.

Lament is something that we don’t hear about in the face of national tragedy.  How is lament different from “thoughts and prayers”?

Andy Crouch in an article in Christianity Today says: “An equally valid and instinctive form of prayer in the face of tragedy is lament, which calls out in anguish to God, asking why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Lament confronts God with his seeming inaction and distance. This is a profound response of faith. Far from being unchristian, it is actually the prayer offered by Jesus himself on the Cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

So this Advent at Faith Church we are going to learn about lament in the psalms.

In our next post, the first psalm of lament we’ll be studying is Psalm 80.

Practical suggestions to help you pray

5 Jun

Image result for prayerThis winter/spring I read an amazing book on prayer I wish I had come across years ago.  It is called Prayer: Conversing with God by a missionary named Rosalind Rinker.  She first published it in 1959, but it is so relevant.  Could have been written yesterday.  Easily one of the best books on prayer I’ve ever read.

She talks about her early experiences on a missionary team, when they had staff prayer meetings:

“We were all together on our knees in the same room, each with love for the other, and each with a common purpose. But I began to realize we were each making a little speech to the Lord when our turn came. I know we were supposed to pray silently with the one who was praying audibly, but when we all covered the same ground — well, I found that I was trying to think how I could start my prayer with more “colorful” words. How I could put more “action” into my prayer, how I could make it sound more “spiritual,” and how I could take hold of the promises with more faith than the others. I wanted to word it differently from the persons who had prayed before me, and make it sound more important and interesting.”

That spoke to me.  I’ve had the same thoughts many times.  As if the prayer time was a showcase of spirituality.  Who could get the most “Amens” or “Yes, Lords”?  I’m guilty of those thoughts each month when I attend my local ministerium prayer meeting or my denominational district pastors’ prayer lunch.  There are buzzwords you can pray and you know you will get a reaction!  Start talking about revival in your prayer, that’s guaranteed to get you some “Amens!”.  But is that how we should pray?

Rinker goes on to say:

“I used to choose a chair near the bookcases, so that when things got dull, I could quietly glance through the shelves and make a mental note, and often a penciled note, of the books I wanted to read.  Then there were the times I actually pulled out a book, and using my jacket around my shoulders as a shield, leafed through some of the books during the prayer meeting.  Sometimes I just plain fell asleep on my knees during those long sessions of prayer. After my turn was over, it wasn’t too hard to do.”

Yup.  Been there too.  When prayer becomes performance, who cares if we pay attention.  But is that how we should pray?

Rinker says that her relationship with God, and thus her practice of prayer, was revolutionized when she discovered that God desires us to talk with him as a friend.  If you read through Exodus, you see the example of Moses and God and how they talked.  It is amazing.  Real friendship.  Real conversation. And in fact in Exodus 33:11, we read “God talked with Moses face to face, as a man talks with his friend.”  You read through the Psalms, and you see David is like that too.  You watch the example of Jesus, and it is the same.  Real conversation in prayer.  Real emotion.  Truth.  Honesty. That’s how we should talk with God.

But what about rote prayers?  If we are supposed to talk with God as a friend, does that mean it is wrong to read or repeat prayers?   Hear me clearly: recited prayers, memorized or read, are not wrong.  In fact, I think they can be very helpful, and we probably need to use them a lot more than we do.

A resource like the Book of Common Prayer is excellent, and I would suggest you all use it, as least from time to time.  There are also numerous BCP apps for your smart phone.  You might look into other prayer books too, and there are many biblical prayers that are fantastic.  There is nothing wrong, for example, with saying the Lord’s Prayer every day, every worship service, as long as your heart is in it!

Along with that kind of written prayer, I believe that conversational, unprepared, ad lib prayer is also very important.   This is where Rosalind Rinker’s book is so helpful.  She has loads of excellent practical suggestions for how to have great conversations with God.

From time to time I hear the argument that says “Well, isn’t prayer unnecessary, because God already knows our thoughts and our needs and everything about us?”  God does know all that.  But that’s pretty one-sided isn’t it?  A real relationship involves equal give and take, both friends communicating as much as possible. How do you think God would feel if we never or rarely make an effort to talk with him?

Therefore, God desires us to be persistent and consistent in prayer.

David says in Psalm 5 that he prays in the morning and watches for God to answer.  I encourage you to read that this week.

Then there is the parable Jesus told in Luke 18 about the widow.  Another one to read this week.  Parables can sometimes be hard to understand, but Luke tells us exactly what Jesus was trying to accomplish in that parable. In Luke 18:1 he writes “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

You know what that means?  Prayer takes energy, investment, and commitment.  When I took prayer class in college, I heard a phrase that shocked me “prayer is hard work.”

It seems wrong to say “prayer is hard work”.  But anytime you do anything consistently and persistently, it can feel like hard work.  So let’s not fool ourselves by saying that prayer is supposed to be simple or carefree or effortless.  A healthy practice of prayer, like any healthy relationship will take work.

Here’s the beautiful thing, though.  Hard work can become heavenly.  How many of you have had the experience of learning to love and enjoy hard work?  Whether it is straight up physical labor, exercising, practicing a sport or maybe a musical instrument, you can grow to enjoy it.  Say you are on a sports team.  After you practice and practice, and after you put in the hard work, how many have found it to become delightful?

Jesus’ disciples once asked him “Teach us pray.”  Great question. That’s what this sermon is all about.  We want to learn How to Pray.  So, what should you actually do?  What will this hard work of prayer look like?  And will you work at it, practice it, till it becomes delightful to be in such regular, wonderful conversation with God?

Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Plan to pray.  Carve out time.  It could mean cutting out something to make room for prayer.  I recently read an article where a guy made a commitment to wake up at 5am every day for a year.   Not necessarily to pray.  But it changed his life.  Would you wake up early to make time for prayer?  That might work for you.  Or would you cut out time on Facebook in order to have time to pray? In Matthew 6, right before he teaches the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus suggests that when we prayer, we get alone, be in secret, talk with God.  When I was a student at LBC, I used the private music listening booths in the library.
  2. Write down prayer requests.  Keep a journal.  I found a great free prayer app this week.  Prayer Mate.  It is available for both iPhones and Androids.
  3. Pray God’s word.  Write down this reference.  I preached it on Easter.  Ephesians 1:17-19.  Then the most famous prayer of all is the Lord’s Prayer.  Matthew 6:9-13.  Memorize it.  Use it both as a word-for-word prayer, but also as a model for prayer.  Take note of the elements that Jesus includes in the Lord’s Prayer.  Praise, Confessing sins, Requests, Thanksgiving.  Then go to the Psalms.  We need a steady diet of the Psalms.
  4. Just start talking.  Know that God loves you, that he is your friend.  And just start talking to him.  Tell him everything.  Have a conversation with him exactly like you do with your friends.  In a group setting, can I challenge you to take a risky step and pray out loud.  Even if it is just one sentence.

Learning to how to pray is not going to happen by reading a blog post or book about prayer.  If you want to learn how to pray, it all boils down to just starting.  Make a practical goal for yourself this week.

My personal goal is prayer walks through the church.  I need to get started.  When I walk through the various rooms and hallways of the church building, it reminds me to pray for various ministries, groups and people in our church family.  In the lobby, I see our Summer Lunch Club volunteer sign-up table.  That reminds me to pray for all the volunteers and participants in a wonderful outreach the helps families in need.  Down the hall, I walk past the nursery and I think about all the families in our congregation raising young children.  I pray for them during what is an emotionally and physically exhausting period of life.  Around the corner, I see the offices of The Door Christian Fellowship, an amazing congregation that rents space from Faith Church.  We’ve deeply appreciated our partnership with The Door, and I pray that God blesses them.  And on and on the prayer goes.

How about you?  What will you to work on prayer?

Here’s my one big action step I’d like you to consider.  Get a trainer.  Be a trainer.  Yup, just as you would get a trainer for your physical health, get a spiritual trainer to learn how to pray.  Jesus once said, “Where 2 or 3 are together, there am I with them.”  When you get together with people to pray, he is there.  What an outstanding promise!  So who will train you to pray?  Or, who will you train?

Then add Rosalind Rinker’s book to this.  Each of you get the book, and read one chapter per week.  Get together for an hour per week, and take 30 minutes to review the chapter, then take 30 minutes to pray.

Get started.  With expectancy.

With any habit, it can take a while for it to feel more comfortable. But that is the nature of anything you want to grow in.  Practice.  Practice. Practice.

You can see such a difference in people that practice.  Whether it is a musical instrument or athletics.  There is such a connection to the spiritual life.  We are not just spirits.  We are bodies too, so how we use our bodies affects our spirit.  That’s why we need to practice spiritually.

Remember God’s grace.  You don’t have to pray perfectly.  God doesn’t care about that.  Just start talking with him. Share your thoughts with him, and do it consistently.  It might feel awkward, but push through.  That’s what practice is like.  And watch your conversations with God grow and flourish.

Do you want to learn how to pray?

2 Jun

Image result for i don't know how to pray

Do you know how to pray?

Before we talk about that important question, let me back up a bit.  It took me a while to find this image. To be honest, it almost always takes longer than I want to find the right image for my posts, or for the PowerPoint slides I make to illustrate my sermons.  I use Google Image Search, and often the results returned are not quite what I’m looking for.  So I have to refine the search multiple times and scroll through row after row of images.  Sometimes the images help me think about my blog posts or sermons in a new way, and I decide to change the sermon.  But more often, I tire of not finding the right image.

This time, though, I had one phrase I was looking for: “I don’t know how to pray.”  I have heard people express that sentiment or something like it many times over the years.  That’s why my sermon this coming Sunday is called “How to Pray”.

All I wanted was one picture that said “I don’t know how to pray” or “How do I pray?”  As you can see the one I found is close.  Close enough for me.  I was surprised because I thought “How to Pray” would be a popular topic, and thus result in loads of images to choose from.

What was interesting, though, was that another result filled the page with images.  That other result was the question “What to Pray?”  It seems that people are talking about “What to Pray” rather than “How to Pray.”  Or at least people are posting more images about “What to Pray” than they are posting images about “How to Pray.”  The exception is that there were a few images referring to how to pray in specific circumstances.  I would suggest that “How to Pray (in a specific situation)” is just a variation of “What to Pray”.  So I didn’t want to use a picture that described, for example, “How to pray for your kids”.

I also didn’t want an image that referred to “What to Pray”; I wanted one about “How to Pray.”  If you learn how to pray, it will be much, much easier to determine what to pray.  Furthermore, I suspect that people, based on the input I have received from our Faith Church family, want to learn how to pray.

This morning I was talking with someone who mentioned prayer times before extended family meals. One older member of the family always does the praying.  They are not rote prayers.  But this person seems to be able to speak with eloquence in his prayers.  So that person always prays.

Is that the answer to “How to pray?”  Eloquence?  Do you have to be a good public speaker in order to pray?

Or what about those rote prayers?  I mentioned rote prayers above because that is another way people answer “How to pray?”  A rote prayer is a memorized prayer that is recited.  For example, The Lord’s Prayer which starts “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed by thy name…”  There are mealtime prayers, bedtime prayers, and so on.  Among the various religious traditions there are loads of rote prayers. Are rote prayers the answer to “How to pray?”  I would say “Yes.”  But only partially.  I love The Book of Common Prayer, as it helps us pray in many situations.  You can read and inhabit one of its meaningful prayers for a host of common life situations.  I believe we that we would do well to memorize and recite, or at least read, these pre-written prayers often.  But I also believe there is more to prayer.  Much more.

How about you?  Do you feel you have a good handle on prayer?  Are you wondering “How to Pray”?

At Faith Church on Sunday we begin a summer teaching series called Spiritual Exercises, and if you don’t have a church family, we invite you to join us at 9:00am.  For the next few months we’re going to be talking about the following habits/disciplines/exercises which are vital for helping us live eternal life now.  How to:  pray, read the Bible, fast (deny yourself), talk about God, worship, be humble, depend on God, serve, give, make disciples, have solitude, love God with your mind.

We start off tomorrow trying to answer the question: How to pray?

Could prayer meetings and hand-raising be the worship that God really wants?

21 Feb

Related image

Last week I mentioned the massive investment Christians have made in building-centered, staff/program-heavy, Sunday worship.  I wondered if God might evaluate us concluding, “I wish you would have done something different.” But how do we know what God would say?  Most of us involved in leading church worship do want to know God’s evaluation of our worship.  Is it possible to get such an evaluation?

At Faith Church, we’ve been studying the biblical letter of 1st Timothy, and the section we came to on Sunday brought us face to face with an evaluation of our worship.  Read 1 Timothy 2:1-8 to see for yourself.

In verse 3 where Paul says that “this is good and pleases God our savior.” What is good?  What pleases him?  To be a praying people!  “This” refers to verses 1-3 in which Paul is urging them to be a praying people.

You would be hard-pressed to use Scripture to support the investment most church makes in buildings, worship services, and staff (including pastors) that lead programs.  I am not saying that Scripture says those things are wrong and we should stop doing them.  Instead, we need to see Paul here teaching us that Christians demonstrate a commitment to being a praying people.  When it comes to worship, being a praying people is good and pleases God our Savior.

So what will it look like for us to increase our quantity of prayer?

An attempt to answer that question brings to mind the Jim Cymbala quote I put at the top of every Faith Church Wednesday evening prayer meeting guide:

“From this day on, the prayer meeting will be the barometer of our church.  What happens on Wednesday night will be the gauge by which we will judge success or failure because that will be the measure by which God blesses us.”

Think about that quote.  Is it possible that if we are prayer-less or don’t pray enough, we will not access the blessing and power that God offers us?  Is it possible that we emphasize Sunday morning worship too much, and Wednesday evening prayer not enough?

Paul says a few other things about prayer in this passage as well.  But I’d like to jump to his conclusion in verse 8, where he says, “Therefore I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.”

Based on everything he has said to Timothy about prayer, Paul wants men everywhere to lift up hands in prayer.  Paul has made his case.  He has argued that prayer is vital. He spends time describing what prayer is, who to pray for, what to pray for, and now his conclusion?  Lift up your hands.

I have to admit that I got to that part and thought to myself, “Huh?  Really?  Why does he care about lifting up of hands?”  And to some degree I still think that.  In fact, I often think that hand-raising can be so contrived.  Like in this video:

Then I think, I’m at least a bit used to the idea of raising hands during the musical part of our worship service.  So why would Paul ask them to raise hands in prayer?  And why does he pinpoint the men?  Notice that in verse 9, which we’ll get to next week, he is going to talk specifically to the women.  If there he is clearly talking to the women, here in verse 8 we know he is specifically talking to the men.  I bring that up because sometimes “men” can be a generic way to speak of both genders.  “Peace to all men, or all mankind”.  Not here though.

Paul wants the men to lift up hands in prayer.

Men at Faith Church, including me, barely ever do this.  Is that cool, in God’s evaluation, or not cool? We have some people, including men, that lift up hands during singing.  Is that the same as what Paul is talking about?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Let’s approach it from another angle: why do people not lift their hands during prayer?  Should we? Investigate this with me a bit further.

Paul is possibly speaking figuratively here.  It could be that he just wants people to pray, and he is using the words “lift up holy hands” as way of describing prayer.  I grew up in a culture that taught Sunday School children to “bow your heads, fold your hands, and close your eyes”.  Some Christian speakers, before leading a congregation in prayer, say “Would you bow your heads with me?”  They don’t even use the word “prayer” but we all know what they mean.  They don’t really want people to physically bow, do they?  No, they want people to pray.  But the act of bowing has become synonymous with the act of praying.  “Bow your heads in prayer.”  Paul could easily be doing something similar here.  We’re not used to it because raising hands in prayer is not a part of our worship culture.  But it was for them.  Look through the Old Testament and raising hands in prayer is all over the place.  So it could just be cultural.

But let’s not just assume that Paul is speaking figuratively.  What if he does want Christians, and especially men, to raise their hands when they pray?

When I was a student at Bible college, we had chapel service every day in the morning.  At some point a group of students started lifting their hands during worship.  A few weeks went by, and one day the President at the time started off chapel with an announcement.  “There will be no raising of hands here.”  Why not?  Was the president of a Bible college going against the Bible?  It seems so, because here we have Paul specifically telling the men to raise up holy hands in prayer.

Frankly, I read this verse and I don’t like it.   I must admit within me, I rebel emotionally at the idea of raising hands.  Why, Paul, why?  It seems so stupid.  Really, Paul, no one cares whether or not I raise hands in prayer!

I think there are a few ways to respond to that.

First, I need to remember that God is not interested in rituals.  We read that many places as well.  He was regularly upset with the Israelites when they practiced the rituals of worship, especially the vast sacrificial system, but didn’t give their hearts in worship.  God says “I want your hearts, not sacrifices.”   Hand-raising could easily become a ritual.  I start praying and raise my hands just to check it off the list.  Or what if, at the end of each sermon when I normally close in prayer, I say, “OK, men, I’m going to start praying now, so up with your hands!”?  Our God is not into that kind of ritual.  He wants our hearts!

And that is where I think we would do well to examine why we do or do not raise hands.  If done with the right heart motivation, raising hands can show a submissiveness to God. Look at the physical difference between the posture of open hands raised and that of crossed arms.  Open vs. Closed.  Symbolically that says something.  Raised hands can be a plea to God for help, a humility before God.

Paul is not saying that you need to go to Tim Hawkins’ hand-raising class to learn how to do it right.  But we all should look at our inner attitude and motivation when we do raise our hands.  Examine your heart.  Why do you do this?  To draw attention to yourself?  Or because you think you have to?  Or because you are filled with gratitude to God, because you want to show humility and praise to God?

At Faith Church, we have a lot more of us that never raise hands, as compared to those that do.  We have some that want to raise their hands, but are shy.  Or we wonder what people will think if we raise our hands.  Yours truly is in this category.  When we’re singing songs, I have all kinds of thoughts going through my head.  I want to raise my hands, but I don’t want to be showy.  But then I think, maybe I should raise my hands because I’m the pastor.  No, I think, that’s not what God wants.  Not ritual, but heart.  Then I think, yeah, but remember how excited you get at Connor’s soccer games, and your hands are in the air a lot!  And you don’t care what anyone else in the crowd thinks of you.  Michelle is embarrassed at how loud you get.  Why can’t you do that during worship?  True, I tell myself, true.  My fear takes over though.  I rationalize: I don’t need to raise hands, do I?  I mean, God doesn’t really care, right?  He wants my heart, right?  And I usually don’t raise them.

And that is a peak into my heart and mind almost every Sunday.  It can feel like inner turmoil rather than the worshipful, thankful attitude I want to have during singing praise to God.

If that at all resonates with you, are you allowing fear to grip you and control you, more than your desire to lift up your hands as act of praise and prayer showing your submissiveness to God?  I can’t answer that for you.  It could be that a lot more of us do need to raise our hands.  But none of us should judge.  Whether we see people raising hands a lot and think they should less, or whether we don’t see people raising hands much and think they should more, let us not be a people of judging one another.  What is important is the heart!

Let us also, Christian brothers and sisters, be a people of prayer.  I love that during most Faith Church worship services, we have an open mic sharing and prayer time.  But I also love that we have Wednesday evening 7-8pm focused on prayer. There are many other ways and places that we can pray.  Sunday School classes, small groups, Bible studies, one on one, before meals or before bed time.  I encourage all those things.

But let me ask, family of Faith Church: what is your schedule like on Wednesday at 7pm?  Seriously.  Will you consider making Wednesday evening prayer meeting a priority?  We won’t force you to pray out loud.  We don’t require long, eloquent prayers.  We have a short Bible study, right now we’re going through the book of Joshua, and then we pray.  We have a time for requests, we pray through the bulletin prayer list, we pray for any requests that are submitted via the connection cards, email, or otherwise, and then we start praying for our church and ministry.  I find the time usually flies by!  Will you join us so that we can become more the praying people that God wants us to be?

The extremely important teaching of Jesus that Google (and maybe your church) is missing

8 Aug

Today while writing this post, I googled “the one thing Jesus taught us to do.”  I was looking for an image to illustrate the reflection that I usually write about the jesus teachprevious Sunday’s sermon.  The results of my image search were very interesting.  Can you predict which result was the most frequent?  Prayer.  I guess the algorithm guiding the search keyed in on the famous verses where the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray and he taught them the Lord’s Prayer.

But that’s not what I was looking for.   I guess my search was misleading.  As I thought about it, I realized that there was not just one thing that Jesus taught his disciples.  So I rewrote my search terms to “the most important thing Jesus taught us.”  Guess what happened?  A lot more images of prayer.  There was more variety this time, though.  The first image in the list said “serve others.”   I thought for sure “Love one another” would be there.   Or “Love the Lord your God”.  But those phrases were not there, or maybe they were buried so far down the list, that I stopped looking before I scrolled to them.

I do searches like this every week trying to find the right image for blog posts and PowerPoint shows to illustrate sermons.  It is most often a matter of word-smithing the search phrase in such a way that the results return what I’m looking for.  But this time I was curious as to what Google’s algorithms would come up with in regard to Jesus’ teachings.  Those results could be said to be a representation of what people believe to be Jesus’ most important teachings.  Therefore the internet is saying that Jesus’ most important teaching is about prayer.

Before you think this is a post about prayer, let me also point out that it was noteworthy what was missing from the search results.  This is not actually a post about prayer.   While I think prayer is very important, there is another teaching that Jesus gave his disciples that should be at the top of the list.  Why did it not show up on Google’s image search?  Perhaps it is an indication that we American Christians have not placed proper importance on this one extremely important teaching of Jesus.

Last week I suggested that there are two things that Jesus did NOT tell us to do, but that we do a lot of, and there is there is one thing he DID tell us to do that we don’t do.  The two things we do a lot are (1) the building of church buildings and (2) holding Sunday worship services in them.  Neither are bad activities, but they can consume our focus, whereas Jesus asked us to focus on something else.

What was the one thing Jesus told us to do?

We often call it the Great Commission.  Make disciples.  Jesus made disciples and he asked his disciples to make more disciples. 

Jesus did not say “I want you to make believers.”

Instead he said that if anyone would be his disciple, that person must deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow Jesus.

So when Jesus says that we are to make disciples, he is saying that he wants us to interact with people in such a way that they, too, deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.  He does not want believers who keep their thoughts about him in their minds.  He wants disciples whose lives are transformed so that they look more and like him, so their lives look more and more like the way he lived his life.  That means when people get connected to the family of Faith Church, we do not want them to just be Sunday morning worshipers and fellowshippers, we want them to be people of whom it can be said, they are denying themselves, taking up their cross and following him.

If you say “Well, I believe in Jesus,” you should not be assured that you are actually a disciple.  If you say “Well, I believe in Jesus,” and you look at your life and you see that your relationship with Jesus is focused on attending Sunday morning worship and fellowship, you should not be assured that you are actually a disciple.

What does it mean to be his disciple?  His central teaching was that to be his disciple, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

What is taking up your cross?  How do we do that in 2016?

Jesus taught that discipleship was a life of learning from him.  To be his apprentice.  To learn from him how to live.  Gradually he molded his disciples into the men and women who could take over the mission of God’s Kingdom for him.

We need to address what taking up your cross is NOT.  We hear the phrase in our culture: “that’s my cross to bear”.  Is that what Jesus is talking about?  Not necessarily.  People can say “that’s my cross to bear” for all sorts of reasons.

“Well, I have to take care of my elderly parents.  It’s my cross to bear.”

“My boss is a jerk.  It’s my cross to bear.”

All kinds of situations can be our cross to bear.  But that’s not what Jesus meant. Usually we say that phrase as a “poor me”.

Instead a disciple carries his cross daily and follows Jesus.  Jesus meant that his way, his life becomes our focus.  We learn to do what he did.  Even if it is difficult.  Even if it is putting your life at risk for Jesus and the advancement of his Kingdom.  Even if it means you don’t get to experience the pleasures of this world, like you see your friends and neighbors and co-workers doing.

Jesus described it perfectly when he said that taking up your cross starts with denying yourself.

Taking up your cross is a figurative picture of giving up everything to follow Jesus! It is saying to Jesus, “I give you permission to do what you want with me.  I give you permission to have control of every area of my life.”  And then actually changing whatever areas of your lives he wants to change.

But how do you do that?

  1. An extremely important way to begin is to humbly and teachably read his word and ask the Spirit of God to convict you of any sin in your life that needs to be changed.
  2. The next step is to share this with people who will speak honestly with you.  Invite people who are also disciples of Jesus to speak the truth in love to you.  To hold you accountable to make the changes you know God wants you to make.
  3. Finally continue in this until you are making changes that God wants you to make so that you can see you are being transformed.

Before you start thinking that I’m describing a pretty horrible way to live, let’s look at what this life is actually like.  All this talk of self-denial and being changed and letting Jesus control you can sound really bizarre.  Until you look at Jesus’ actual life.  I urge you to do that.  Read one of the stories of his life: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Decide for yourself.  I would submit that if you are not that familiar with Jesus’ pattern of life, you will be astounded by the grace, the joy, the peace, the attractiveness, the mercy and the love that flows from him.  His way of life was the happiest, best way of life.  A disciple is learning from Jesus how to live.

One aspect of being Jesus’ disciple, therefore, is putting off the old selfish way, and putting on the new way of Jesus.  The apostle Paul used that image in Romans 13:14 when he said “Clothe yourselves with Christ.”

It is like clothing.  I go out to mow the grass, work in the garden or split and stack wood.  I get very sweaty and dirty.  Those dirty sweaty clothes represent the old way of life, the selfish way, where certain sins reside in our lives.

I come inside, cool off, get a shower, put on new clean clothes.  Those clean clothes, Paul says, represent the new way of Jesus.  His way is the way of a transformed heart and life.  Paul calls it the Fruit of the Spirit, where the good things of Jesus are growing inside us, and those good things naturally come out.

Jesus taught us, “By their fruit you will know them.”  I look at my berry bushes and I know what kind they are.  The ones on the left have black berries and the ones on the right have red berries.  Then there are also plants with similar leaves growing up in the middle of the berries.  But those plants, though they look similar, have no berries.  They are weeds.

You know a person by his or her fruit too.  If you find within yourself, or if others tell you, that you are regularly grumpy, complaining, angry, upset, selfish, hiding away, escaping to fantasy, manipulative, lying, hurting others’ feelings, rough, harsh, talking too much, having to be the center of attention, then those are the fruits that are coming out of your life.

Here’s the thing though: so often they are coming out of our lives but we are more than willing to let ourselves off the hook and say “Well, I’m not so bad.”  Or “Tough, that’s just me.”  “Deal with it, that’s how God made me.”  If you ever hear phrases like that coming out of your mouth, or even if you think them, you should be very concerned about yourself.  You need people to confront you, to tell you the true story of who you are, and you need to listen to them.

So while a relationship with Jesus begins by believing, by trusting in him, it will not be a relationship very long if the trusting and believing is not followed by obeying.

“Trust and obey,” goes a classic song that we teach our children, “for there’s no other way.”  Or as James says in James 2, “faith without works is dead.”  Even Satan and the demons have faith, James reminds us.  They know Jesus is the truth, but of course they do not obey him.  That’s where a true disciple is different; a true disciple not only believes and trusts in Jesus, they also give their lives over to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.

So are a you a true disciple of Jesus?  What does it look like for you to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him?

Listen to the whole sermon here.

Why our worship will be silent this Sunday at Faith Church – May 8, 2016

6 May

A few years ago we started holding Silent Sunday around the time the Christian Church world-wide observes Jesus’ Ascension.  We’re told in the earliest historical account of the first followers of Jesus, the Book of Acts, in chapter 1, that after Jesus ascended to heaven, the very first act his followers decided to do was pray.

Our best calculations put about ten days between the Ascension and the day of Pentecost, and we read in Acts 1:14 that during that those ten days “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Influenced by the first followers of Jesus, and by Quaker and Taize worship, both of which include periods of silence, of listening, we give an entire worship gathering over to near total silence.

After dismissing our preschool and elementary kids to their classes, the rest of us will follow on-screen prompts, guiding us through worship for the morning.  We’ll have a couple contemplative, soft songs which we will sing audibly, quietly, but the bulk of our worship will be silent prayer, listening for the voice of God, especially through the Bible.  We will include a handful of five minute periods of total silence.

Take a look at how the passage we have come to in our study through Luke is a great fit for Silent Sunday.  In Luke 22:39-46, it is Thursday night of Passion Week.  Jesus has just eaten his final meal with his disciples.  What should have been a joyous celebration of the Jewish Passover, now had a palpable ominous tone.  Jesus talked about giving up his body, his blood, about betrayal and denial, and how they should have swords ready. Was this the moment so many in the crowds, including the disciples, had been waiting for?  The moment the Messiah would start a battle to kick the Romans out of Jerusalem?

Under the cover of night, Jesus leads his disciples out to the Mount of Olives, the same place he would lead them on Ascension Day.  But rather than round up more weapons, rather than draw plans for a coup, in verse 40 Jesus urges his disciples to pray that they will not fall into temptation.  What is he talking about?

Temptation?

Of what?

Jesus wanders off about a stone’s throw away, praying alone.  It is late.  We don’t know how long the disciples prayed.  Perhaps they debated amongst themselves what might be happening.  Was Jesus getting spiritually ready for battle tomorrow?  Did they try to guess which one of them was the betrayer Jesus talked about?  And what of his words to Peter saying Peter would deny him?  One disciple might have scolded Peter, and Peter might have reacted strongly, just as he did to Jesus, that he, Peter, would never deny Jesus.  One by one, as the night wears on, as Jesus is still praying, the men’s eyes droop and they fall asleep.  Is sleepiness the temptation Jesus was referring to?  They all give in.

We’ll look at this amazing passage more intently during Silent Sunday, particularly as Luke tells us precisely what Jesus prayed for.  This passage, then, is perfect for Silent Sunday.   I’ll admit, it might seem weird, strange for a church to give an entire worship service to silent prayer and meditation!  How many of us spend an hour in prayer on a regular basis??? Almost never.  So what Jesus said to the disciples is what we need to hear to prepare ourselves for Silent Sunday.

We will wrestle in prayer.  We will be tempted to feel frustrated by this long time in prayer.  We will be tempted to let our minds wander.  Our fast information society has trained us to have short attention spans.  So will you join us this Sunday at Faith Church, 9:30am, to fight your inner desire to be frustrated and to fight your mind that wanders?

In so doing you’ll find that your fight against yourself just might enable you to hear the voice of God like never before.

 

 

Why an increasing practice of prayer is so important – Luke 18:1-17

29 Feb

If we never or rarely pray, what are we saying?

Maybe that we are Christian atheists, unbelieving, like I mentioned last week? It is not enough to believe intellectually that Jesus is God and that he died on the cross and rose again for the forgiveness of our sins, we also show that our faith is real by the choices and actions of our lives. Persistent prayer is an action that shows our faith is real!

I see this as referring to both personal prayer and corporate prayer. Each one of us should spend time in prayer, just as Jesus did, so often alone. And we should gather together as a church to pray, as the apostles did when the church was just beginning. In Acts 2:42-47, we read that the church was committed to prayer.

What does it take to sustain consistent prayer? Yesterday at Faith Church we heard Jesus tell a story about how we should pray and not give up.  What will it take to grow our practice of prayer, both the focused times of prayer, as well as a conversation with God all day, as well as a commitment to corporate prayer?

Time of crisis can drive us to prayer. Remember the days after 9/11? Churches were full. Government officials prayed in public on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC.

Another more personal example of how times of crisis can lead to prayer might resonate with you because it is about dating.  Remember that anxious excitement you felt when you were getting close to a potential date?  You’re hanging out a lot, really enjoying one another, and you’re thinking this might become a serious relationship!  One couple from Faith Church told the story of their first moments of dating.  They were getting close, but they wanted to be sure they were right for each other.  So they had a couple days of nervous prayer when they asked God, was this right?

It might be a huge need in your life, it might be something small. But what happens when the crisis passes, when the need is met? So often our practice of prayer fizzles away.

How can we sustain a vibrant, consistent prayer life?

What could it look like to have a vibrant, consistent prayer life?

We need, first of all, to believe that it is important, that it is valuable. We do what we believe is valuable.  Have you heard of the Tyranny of the Urgent? It is the principle of life that the Urgent crowds out Important. We can evaluate our lives and see how much time we give to social media, to TV, but we say we don’t have time for prayer.  What is really important?  For me it took a course in college on prayer tot opened my eyes to the importance of prayer.

Second, remove busyness. There are moments, and maybe your life feels like this, when you are on the go sunup to sundown. When you are young, though you feel busy, don’t allow yourself to believe that you don’t have time. “Remember your creator in the days of your youth,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes.

Third, don’t give up. Like the persistent widow, we do what we value. We might say that we believe in prayer, that we value it, but so often our belief is just intellectual. If we say we value prayer, but rarely pray, what do we really believe about prayer? Our actions speak louder than words.

Fourth, remove hindrances to prayer. Ask people in your life to help you see those hindrances. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you those hindrances. Are you prideful? Do you need to increase your faith? Do you have broken relationships?

How do we measure success in ministry?

This is really personal for me, thinking about the power of prayer. Prayer is saying to God, “Work in your power through these situations.” He alone has the power, the true power. As Christians if we say we believe that God alone is powerful, and not we ourselves, but we do not pray, we are like Christian atheists. How do we show that we Christians believe that God exists and that he alone has the power?

As Jesus taught in John 15, “Remain in me and you will bear much fruit.”

I need to apply this to my pastoral ministry, to the church.  But it can be applied to your work, to your family, to any way you serve the Lord.  For me I have to ask, should I just do the tasks of ministry:  sermon prep, email, phone calls?  I have to ask, where is the power in ministry?  The power of ministry is remaining in Jesus. A significant way to remain in him is a persistent, consistent practice of prayer.  As I think about how Faith Church pays me to be pastor, based on what Jesus says, the church’s money is best spent if I am spending ample time praying.

This reminds me of something the Apostles said in Acts 6.  The events of Acts 6 take place when the church was in its infancy, likely within the first few months or years after Jesus had returned to heaven.  The church had grown significantly, possibly into the tens of thousands in number.  At one point, we learn in Acts 6, that the Apostles faced a logistical crisis in their church’s ministry of providing food for widows in need.  Rather than spend time on that problem, they selected quality leaders to make sure people were being treated fairly.  You know what the Apostles’ reasoning was delegating this ministry and not handling it themselves?  They said they needed to focus on the ministry of word and prayer.   But I have to admit to you that I have been weak in prayer. I want to make a change and prayer more. One idea I had was to try to take prayer walks around the building of Faith Church, praying for the various people and ministries of the church.

I would also encourage you to think about how you can increase your practice of prayer.  What can you do to pray and not give up?  If you are part of Faith Church, and even if you’re not (!), I would like you to consider if you could make time in your schedule to join us for Wednesday evening prayer.  I continue to believe that it is vitally important for churches to have a regular time for their entire congregation to gather for prayer.  Have you heard the story of the Brooklyn Tabernacle?  I encourage you to read all about it Pastor Jim Cymbala’s book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire.   Brooklyn Tabernacle was weeks away from shutting its doors early in Jim’s tenure as pastor.  During a vacation he sought the Lord in prayer, and felt God wanted him to continue, but that prayer had to be central.  Here’s what he told his congregation upon returning from that trip:

From this day on, the prayer meeting will be the barometer of our church. What happens on Wednesday night will be the gauge by which we will judge success or failure because that will be the measure by which God blesses us. – Jim Cymbala in Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire

Prayer is the engine of the church. Let us measure our church not on Sunday morning attendance, but on how much we are praying!  Brooklyn Tabernacle regularly sees 75% of its Sunday morning crowd attend prayer meeting.  Does your church have a prayer meeting?  Have you considered it to be antiquated?  Perhaps you will reconsider!

What do you need to do to increase your practice of prayer?  Do you need to spend more time praying?  Less time doing other things?  More time trying to have an ongoing conversation with God?  Let’s avoid Christian atheism by being persistent and consistent in prayer.